Disinformation Poses a Serious Threat to Liberal Democracies

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We are all familiar with the absurd conspiracy theories and outrageous claims being made south of the border by anti-vaxxers and other denizens of the lunatic fringe. Only now they are not so far out on the fringe. When more than 58% of Americans believe that Donald Trump won the November 2020 presidential election, or that Bill Gates is implanting microchips in the Covid vaccine, you know that something is seriously wrong with the body politic. 

Americans have always been leery of government, but their congenital lack of trust in politicians has now morphed into a lack of trust in almost all of the major institutions of democracy. Worse still, they have been spurred on by reckless hyperpartisan politicians who happily stoke the flames of discontent by repeating and even creating their own disinformation campaigns. Make no mistake, American democracy is in serious trouble. Stephen Marche’s recent book, The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future, paints a chilling portrait of possible scenarios if this trend is not reversed.

Unfortunately this growing disinformation phenomenon is hardly unique to the United States. Virtually all western liberal democracies have seen an increase in voter discontent fuelled in large measure by their own ignorance. The unexpected success of Boris Johnson’s blatantly misleading pro-Brexit referendum campaign is only one obvious example, and one for which the disastrous results of that pyrrhic victory have been on display ever since. Disinformation campaigns – notably regarding the activities of the European Union or the plight of migrants — have also been used to great effect by extreme opposition parties in France, Italy and Spain, to name just a few other established liberal democracies at risk.

Admittedly this depressing reality has been aided and abetted by hostile covert interventions by foreign actors such as Russia, Iran and China, but these deliberate efforts to subvert the democratic process could only succeed if they fall on fertile ground. The greater threat is coming from within. As Pogo said, “We have seen the enemy and he is us.”

But not in Canada, eh?  If only that were true. Clearly we are in a better position than our neighbours to the south, but that is no reason for complacency. Little problems quickly become big ones if they are not checked. On the health and safety front the damaging impact of disinformation is self-evident. Our much smaller quotient of vaccine resisters nevertheless prevents us from achieving the 80 to 90% level of fully vaccinated citizens needed to stem the pandemic tide. Meanwhile feed and seed stores are still getting misguided requests for invermectin. And a distressing number of individuals have chosen to lose their job rather than accept any form of the Covid vaccine.

The political damage caused by disinformation in Canada is less visible but more insidious. Over the past decade or so there have been a worrisome number of political issues that have been tainted by deliberate disinformation campaigns, and they did not emerge out of nothing. The groundwork was laid some time ago. Back in the 1990’s, for example, the Reform Party led by Preston Manning developed a surprisingly effective technique for criticizing many government policies – they simply labelled them “undemocratic.” All Canadians knew that this was a bad thing, but few knew whether the policies in question actually were undemocratic or not because they had such a slim grasp on the term “democratic” to begin with. Many assumed Manning knew what he was talking about because he was, after all, the leader of a major federal political party. (This would be the same Preston Manning who recently called for a “truce” between the vaccinated and unvaccinated,[i] a message that was widely derided and certainly called into question his judgement.)

A decade later, Manning’s former collaborator and then Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, likewise managed to convince a majority of Canadians that coalition governments were not only undemocratic but very nearly a coup d’etat. Ironically, as countless experts pointed out, it was Harper’s use of prorogation, to escape being defeated by the proposed coalition in parliament, that was undemocratic, a move they referred to as “a flagrant breach of parliamentary practice” and “an assault on democracy.”[ii]   Canadians, however, either believed him or were unconcerned, and returned Harper to power in the next election with a majority. 

Harper similarly attempted to tar many other government institutions with a partisan brush. His views were most clearly revealed during his 2008 election campaign reference to a supposed Liberal bias in the independent judiciary and the non-partisan public service. Indeed, the numerous attacks on the “activist” judiciary by several of Harper’s ministers during his time in office eventually culminated in the prime minister’s own unprecedented criticism of the Chief Justice.  

In this context, casting aspersions could be seen as merely the first step towards the discrediting of the institutions of liberal democracy, one inevitably followed by deliberate deception.  Fast forward to the federal elections of 2019 and 2021, when the Conservatives falsely accused the Trudeau Liberals of planning to legalize all drugs, prohibit all types of firearms and introduce a capital gains tax on the sale of primary residences.[iii] And what are we to make of the fact that the People’s Party of Canada, led by maverick former Conservative MP Maxime Bernier, actually tripled its share of the popular vote in 2021 from 2019 on the basis of an antivax, anti-immigrant platform promoting disinformation at every turn?

While this type of activity may possibly be viewed by disinterested observers as the inevitable parry and thrust of election campaigns, the same cannot be said of the Conservative opposition’s various attempts to mislead Canadians on the implications of government legislation. True, the role of the Official Opposition is to oppose, but on the basis of fact and policy differences, not disinformation. One of the most striking examples of the latter in the previous parliament was the decision by the Conservatives to suddenly oppose Bill C- 10, (legislation to modernize the communications regulatory regime), a measure they had essentially ignored for several months as it made its way through the system. But when it became clear to them that the general public could be persuaded that this act constituted a serious infringement on privacy and freedom of expression they proceeded to attack it with a vengeance. Warning falsely that Canadians’ Facebook postings about their dog could be monitored by the CRTC, the O’Toole Conservatives’ communications machine went into high gear. Judging by the successful fundraising campaign they built around this issue, many voters were convinced.  

However this opportunistic behaviour pales in comparison with the Conservatives’ handling of the file concerning the dismissal of two Chinese scientists from the infectious disease laboratory in Winnipeg. Because opposition parties have the most members on parliamentary committees in a minority parliament they were able to pursue what they perceived to be an important issue very aggressively. Well and good. But they did not stop there. Knowing that there were numerous legitimate concerns about national security they nevertheless continued to press the government for complete and unredacted disclosure of all relevant documents to the members of the committee, none of whom had the required level of security clearance. When the government proposed an alternative – the very one created and used by Stephen Harper to handle the Afghan detainee issue for which his government was under fire at the time–  it was the Conservatives who summarily dismissed that option as unacceptable. What was more, they continued to insist that the government was “hiding” something and should “come clean,” despite the government’s repeated statements that it could not comply with their request as presented because of these national security concerns. Aided and abetted by the other opposition parties, they then pursued the matter in parliament and ultimately left the Speaker with little choice but to declare the government to be in contempt of parliament.     

Yet the Conservatives, who alone have led the charge on this issue once again in the new parliament, know full well that their position is not only unreasonable but deliberately misleading. There is no cover up here. As several former senior public servants have stressed, Canada’s position vis a vis its Five Eyes and NATO partners would be irreparably damaged if sensitive material were to be released as the Conservatives demand.  The mandarins conclude “The government is accountable to our allies for enforcing standards and backing them up with laws restricting the disclosure of secrets. Our allies would simply not accept that the exigencies of a minority parliament would oblige the government to void established secrecy laws and agreements by turning over improperly vetted sensitive material to parliamentarians without security clearance.”[iv] In short, it is not the government that is being duplicitous but the Official Opposition.

While these examples may seem to be minor offences in contrast with the chaotic situation in the United States and some other liberal democracies in Europe, they are important indicators of the state of Canadian democracy. As a British parliamentary committee concluded after studying coalition governments in several Commonwealth countries, the attempted 2008 Canadian example was unhelpful not only because it failed, but also because of why it failed, namely because of Stephen Harper’s successful efforts to discredit the entire concept of coalition government. “Canadians in general” they wrote, “displayed a shocking lack of understanding of their system of government.”[v]

Clearly, more needs to be done by the media and educators to ensure that Canadians are better informed. Voters must know how to separate fact from hyperpartisan propaganda and falsehoods if we are to avoid the potential pitfalls of the current age of disinformation.      

[i] Preston Manning. “Despite our Differences on Covid, Let’s Call a Christmas Truce”. Letter to the Editor. Globe and Mail. December 23, 2021.

[ii] For more detail see N. Wiseman. “The Use, Misuse and Abuse of Prorogation.” Hill Times, Jan 3, 2010.

[iii] https://www.hilltimes.com/2021/09/13/breaking-new-ground-in-canadian-politics-otoole-slips-a-bogus-conspiracy-theory-into-the-nationally-televised-leaders-debate/316748

[iv] Kergin, Fyffe and Mitchell. “Canada Will be Weakened if it Loosens Rules Around Releasing Intelligence.” Globe and Mail. Dec. 31, 2021.

[v] United Kingdom. House of Commons Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform. Report. Vol.2 January 28, 2011.